Smarter Home Life’s 2017 Predictions for Home Automation and LED Lighting

2016 was, without a doubt, a big year of developments for the smarter home. From a wider selection of connected devices to increased competition of the voice-based digital assistants, all categories of the smarter home were taken up a notch. 2017 is going to bring even more change to the connected home, and will should start to decrease some of the confusion and complexity that consumers currently face when getting started on the road to a truly smart home.

LED Lighting

Selection of non-connected LED lighting (is it ok to call it “dumb” LED lighting?) increased tremendously in 2016 while prices continued to drop. In 2017 some of this will continue, but refinement is going to be the name of the game vs a plethora of new products. While not everyone has converted to LED lighting from CFL or incandescent / halogen, people are getting more familiar with the advantages of LED. Companies have done a much better job at educating consumers and have created better displays showcasing the bulbs at various stores, and by partnering with independent content creators (like us!) to tell the LED story.

In 2016, dimming issues like noise/buzzing and flicker, and quality-of-light challenges were largely resolved across the board. In 2017, look for most companies to offer both traditional LED lighting and “warm glow” versions of their bulbs, which change color temperature just like incandescents and halogen bulbs when they are dimmed. This is a feature that’s been difficult for lighting manufacturers to perfect, but it’s now been achieved with very good results by both Philips and Cree, with TCP recently joining in, too.

Shapes and design of LED bulbs, which originally started in a rather bizarre spectrum of materials, cooling systems and light-emission technologies have largely been dialed down into a more pleasing and familiar “light bulb” shape and size that is now mostly standard across all manufacturers. This will also help with consumer adoption, as they know what to expect when buying LED bulbs and how they’ll look when installed in their homes. In 2017, manufacturers will also finish filling out their lines of bulbs in various sizes that may not be available right now. This specifically refers to “specialty” lamps such as PAR bulbs and MR16 / GU10 lamps.

Price drops, largely initiated by Cree in 2013 and continued in 2016, will most likely continue in 2017 but be more modest. In multi-packs, some LED bulbs are now priced at just $3 per bulb, which is a much easier price point for consumers to act on, especially with the promise of energy savings over the bulb’s expected life.

Finally, some manufacturers, like Cree, have said they intend to introduce bulbs with new features on an annual basis, similar to smartphones. And, that consumers should think about upgrading their lighting every one to two years. We’re really not sure if this is going to take off, as it will be a shift in consumer thinking to get people to replace their lighting on a regular basis. And, if the bulbs have a 20+ year lifespan and cost $3, why upgrade every year? While there are regular advances in the LED chips themselves along with some of the processes that literally “grow” them, we think only giant leaps of energy efficiency combined with a similar or lower prices would get consumers to replace a fleet of recently-purchased LED lighting products.

The Bottom Line: For those consumers who have waited to make the switch to LED, 2017 is going to be a great year to do it.

Smart LED Lighting

This is the category the blurs the lines of lighting and home automation products, and largely didn’t exist until about five years ago with the introduction of Philips Hue. We’re entering 2017 with fresh releases of Philips Hue and LIFX smart lighting, and soon-to-ship products from ilumi, Sylvania and promised-to-be-more-affordable Qube. Late 2016 also saw the release of interlocking, color-changing Nanoleaf Aurora panels.

Many eyes are now on Sylvania, which just announced the first no-hub-required HomeKit-enabled smart bulb. Many, many viewers of Smarter Home Life’s videos have been asking for this exact product, and while we didn’t think Sylvania would be the company to bring it to market first, at least someone finally did it. Sylvania has had a line of smart lighting products, Lightify, out for a while now but they have largely flown under the radar compared with the near-ubiqitous Philips Hue line of smart lighting. 2017 should hopefully bring additional HomeKit bulbs that don’t require a hub - LIFX and ilumi, are you reading this?

In 2017, we’ll be seeing the “battle of the light strips”, among other new and innovative lighting technologies from companies like LIFX, ilumi and Nanoleaf. LIFX just started shipping LIFX Z, with individually-addressable 6-LED groups on each connected strip that can make colorful patterns and, eventually, animated effects. They’re just getting started with this product, but they may be outdone by ilumi, who went back to crowdfunding last summer for their new lightstrip product. But the ilumi lightstrip’s are all individually addressable, and the strips are weatherproof, too. Think: Las Vegas-style colorful and imaginative lighting effects both in- and outside your home, the possibilities will likely be endless. And then there’s the triangular, interlocking, make-any-shape-you-can-dream-of connected, color-changing Aurora panels by Nanoleaf. Nanoleaf is known for their funky-looking 3D-printed LED bulbs, but the Aurora panels can add some beautiful and colorful effects to your walls. Will Philips launch a new Hue product to compete with these newer offerings from their competition, we hope so!

There has been a proliferation of Bluetooth-based smart bulbs over the past year, which generally only connect to a smartphone/tablet via a proprietary app, and we’re geneally not fans. If you build a smart lighting product, take the time to build in a Wi-Fi or another radio that can connect to other systems in the smarter home. Otherwise, you’re building a limited-use product. Until Bluetooth gains better interconnection with Wi-Fi and actual network connectivity, Bluetooth-only products will serve specialized, closed-ecosystem purposes.

Connectivity to the popular smart lighting platforms is already excellent, along with functionality due to regular updates by the companies who make them and those who build apps and services to make them more usable and fun. Lighting is something that everyone is used to having “instant” control of…e.g. flip the switch and it’s on. In 2017, more solutions for “instant control” via physical interaction must become available. Philips has tackled this with its Tap and Dimmer Switch devices for Hue, but third party solutions will need to emerge to help consumers avoid digging out their smartphones or tapping buttons on tiny wearable devices. "But wait!" you say. "What about those Flic buttons and such?" Seriously? You’re going to buy those sticky-back buttons at $30 each, connect them up via something like IFTTT and hope they work most of the time? Nope, we’re not fans.

Smart LED lighting has also grown smarter in other ways in recent years. By combining speakers, sensors and even security cameras into lighting products, companies like Sengled, Twist and Zmodo are enabling consumers to literally just screw-in a light bulb and gain whole-house audio or add remote surveillance capabilities to their smarter home. We’ll likely see more of these innovative products emerge in 2017, especially at CES, which usually sets the stage for the entire year of consumer electronics. What new devices will combine with LED lighting? Perhaps toasters and waffle-makers? OK, maybe not, but additional sensors for making a smarter home truly “smart” would be great to be able to deploy in more places. The next category for these sensors is probably combined smoke, carbon monoxide and radon detectors embedded in smart lighting products.

The biggest change that needs to happen in 2017 for smart lighting to increase its adoption among consumers is on price. We receive many, many comments on smart lighting that “it’s really cool, but way too expensive.” And, we tend to agree. Why buy a $15 or $20 smart bulb that only dims and brightens, when you really want the color-changing and much-more-fun premium version of the bulb? Outfitting your entire home? That could be pricey. We’re not quite sure the high prices are based on actual component costs, or just an artificial value placed on “color-changing, premium features” by manufacturers. But, newcomer Qube Smart Home evidently has cracked the price barrier with its crowdfunded Wi-Fi smart bulb, which is now shipping to backers and will retail for just $29 (pre-order now for just $24 per bulb.)

The Bottom Line: Smart lighting in 2017 is going to be colorful, creative and will probably pack additional features into a light bulb you never thought possible. This party is just getting started!

Home Automation

Consumers were treated to many new home automation products in 2017 across the board, which was both a blessing and a curse. Many new products arrived that worked with various platforms, but not all of them, and a new platform arrived (Google Home) that didn’t work with everything, either. And while companies like Control4 still want to convince consumers to just let them “do it all for you”, most folks getting into home automation want to do it gradually, and on their own terms. Welcome to the confusing modern era of home automation.

The real question for home automation in 2017 is not how many new devices will land on the market, but how you will interact with them. And, how manufacturers and third-party app developers and integrators will help consumers create their smarter home without losing their minds.

It’s no longer a challenge for the industry to build “the greatest smoke detector ever made that also comes with Wi-Fi” or “the smallest door and window open/closed sensor”. But how does the industry evolve so that consumers feel like all of these products actually improve their lives? And, will consumers actually be able to live the much-hyped “smarter home lifestyle”?

The New Guys

Oddly enough, many of the technology headlines for the “smart home” in 2016 were about the new players in home automation: Amazon, Apple and Google. In 2017, we’re going to see the competition between voice-based assistants really get going, especially as Samsung officially joins in with their “Bixby” assistant based on their 2016 acqusition of Viv (the company started by the founders of Siri.) As promised, Google started adding partners in late December to its new Assistant platform, which powers Google Home, to catch up to the many capabilities of the Amazon Echo and Alexa. While Apple vastly improved HomeKit in 2016, it’s still somewhat limited in functionality and scope, due to their restrictive policies and the “walled garden” of iOS.

Both the competition due to new home automation technologies and hubs, along with some companies either having closed-off systems (HomeKit) or quickly-evolving platforms (Alexa, Google Assistant) are stunting the growth potential of the “smart home” industry right now. And only the brand-new players who have open systems, like Amazon and Google, can truly push the industry forward and increase consumer adoption.

When the Amazon Echo burst onto the scene in late 2014, it was instantly loved by many. And as Amazon opened up the ability to create “skills” for Alexa, developers and 3rd-party companies took advantage of the new capability to do nearly anything with one’s voice, including controlling your home’s gadgets. But this, of course, brought eventual confusion. Is the Echo a home automation hub? Not quite. It can do certain, simple home automation tasks, one-at-a-time. Google Home is currently in the same boat. It can control certain things, and fairly well, but it can’t replace a dedicated home automation hub like SmartThings. Alexa and Google’s Assistant are still just “assistants” at this point, and not true home automation controllers.

But, should the Echo and Google Home become true home automation controllers? Probably, but not without additional hardware…unless the entire “smart home” industry moves to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth as a control standard (unlikely at this point.) For the forseeable future, Apple, with HomeKit, will remain the only "outside" player with a voice-controlled home automation solution that has real home automation technology built-in (scenes, triggers, and limited programming.) To truly play in the home automation space, Amazon and Google have to up their game quickly, and can do so with software updates.

You might ask, “Wait, what about Samsung and this new Bixby assistant that they’ve announced will debut in 2017?” Well, Samsung owns SmartThings, and they need to capitalize on their acquisition of Viv (founded by the original Siri guys), fast. We’ll most likely see some sort of integration into the Galaxy S8 smartphone, and we might also see their own take on a Amazon Echo / Google Home device to complement and enhance SmartThings. Neither Amazon nor Google actually owns a home automation technology company, but Samsung also doesn’t have the deep-learning tech or massive trove of data about the world that Google does, nor does it have to absolute-cool-factor of Amazon. We’re guessing the Samsung will struggle to play catch-up, but will most likely be more interested in serving its own purposes than bringing the home automation industry together.

But ultimately, which “new” player is going to win the home automation race and make connecting these gadgets simpler? At this point, we’re probably going to have to bet on Google — unless they decide that Google Home was just another experiment and they chuck it out the window later this year (fingers crossed that this doesn’t happen!) And Google (OK, Alphabet) has Nest, which, to be fair, hasn’t done anything interesting lately, but may finally produce a new product or something to “wow” the industry in 2017. And, remember, Nest bought Revolv, the innovative “smart home” hub with nearly every radio imaginable, and Nest is still working on the much-hyped Thread technology. Something good just has to be cooking over at the Nest labs.

The Products, Bluetooth, and Security

This prediction article wouldn’t be complete without talking about some home automation devices, too. We saw some devices in 2016 break-out of their HomeKit-only “jail”, specifically iDevices’ products gaining connectivity via Amazon’s Alexa platform. This offers a glimmer of hope, that while maintaining outstanding security via the HomeKit standards, those devices can also play in other worlds. We’re hoping that other companies, like Elgato take notice of this.

Elgato makes the Eve line of HomeKit products, from smart switches to sensors. They’re currently compatible only with HomeKit, and also Bluetooth-only. And this leads to the next point in the “smart home” device world: Bluetooth. We’ve started to see many devices, like the aforementioned Eve products, emerge with Bluetooth as the only connectivity. But traditionally, Bluetooth devices have to be “bridged” with another device to get functionality beyond your smartphone or tablet. In the HomeKit world, this is enabled by the Apple TV acting as a “translator” between Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Bluetooth 5, recently adopted by the Bluetooth SIG as its latest specification, has the promise of delivering actual data and potential Internet connectivity to devices directly, which could truly enable this “Internet of Things” that is much-hyped at this point. Getting realtime data to and from these low-power devices via Bluetooth will necesitate new, universal “translator” or “bridge” devices, which could potentially hit the market in late 2017 but would also require more device makers to get on-board with this concept. Upgraded Bluetooth combined with these “bridges”, possibly built-into existing or new hubs and routers, could enable products like the Elgato Eve devices to break out of their own “HomeKit jails”, too.

In 2017, we’ll continue to see the trend of new and never-before-seen product combinations, (LED lighting with cameras, speakers, etc) as mentioned earlier in this article. But another trend will continue, security devices and components entering the home automation category and vice-versa. This is seen with door and window sensors, security cameras and motion detectors all gaining home automation connecivity. And traditional alarm systems continuing to gain home automation control. While Nest may have made a splash with their smart smoke detector, Roost brought remote monitoring of existing smoke detectors. Expect these new and innovative cross-over products to continue rolling-out in 2017.

While the hot trend in home automation right now is voice control, physical switches can’t be left out of the “trifecta” of controlling a smarter home. That’s defined as voice, apps and physical controls. We believe that physical controls, that have clearly defined buttons and which are easily accessed via muscle memory, should not be forgotten in this new era of “virtual everything”. With smart lighting starting to replace existing traditional lighting, but some of it still being controlled by existing switches, how does a consumer gain control over the light? Some smart lighting can interact with switches, some cannot. A new product category that could easily retrofit (think: magnetically attached) switches without wiring changes will need to emerge to give the “instant” control that consumers are used to for lighting and other applications.

Home automation control technologies such as Z-Wave, ZigBee / 802.15.4, Insteon and Lutron Clear Connect aren’t going anywhere in 2017, but Wi-Fi and Bluetooth will become bigger players thanks to technologies like HomeKit. Ensuring that all of these wireless systems can peacefully co-exist in a smarter home will continue to be an industry challenge. Bluetooth 5 specifically addresses wireless co-existence with other technologies. And, as Smarter Home Life has adopted new devices with a plethora of wireless protocols into our “home studio”, we’ve seen some odd behaviors start to show up with some of our existing devices and smart lighting.

And speaking of technologies, the last overarching topic is security. With millions, potentially soon billions of connected devices in smarter homes across the planet, security must be as much of a priority for device manufacturers as interoperability and ease-of-use. The Dyn IoT, while not completely targeted at the latest, modern connected “smart home” gadgets, was a foreshadowing of what could be around the corner if companies don’t take security seriously. Apple, to be sure, has done well with privacy and security with the ridiculously-tight requirements for HomeKit devices, and the rest of the industry would be smart to follow in their footsteps. This also goes for all of the 3rd-party apps, voice-activated assistant devices and just about anything else that connects to a device in your home. And consumers just want to know that their device is going to be safe and secure, and not wade through various logos and symbols on a box to know if the device is ok to bring home or not.

The Bottom Line: Home automation is going to get a bit more difficult before it gets easier for consumers to get started on their own smarter home projects. While there is no shortage of connected devices out there, getting them all to play well with each other is where the industry fails consumers. Smarter Home Life is here to help consumers avoid the pitfalls of home automation on their own journey to creating a truly smart home.